The Emptiest of Comforts

If you have lived through much hardship in this life, you will know the emptiness that is so often present in the words folks use to try to comfort you. Standing by a casket in a funeral home, sitting in a living room after receiving horrible news, watching a tragedy unfold on the national stage, in all such settings, people say things to you that just do not help.

Of course we need to be kind here. People are doing their best. Quite often a person who has no idea what to do with a hard situation feels that he or she must say something, anything, to try to salve your sorrow. And so they try their best. They try to give you something to help you pull through. They want to show you that they care, that they understand, that God is still good. And we need to be gracious with folks who try, even when their efforts leave something to be desired.

Let me give you an example of the emptiest of comforts that a believer might receive. In the middle of hardships, I’ve heard this one. A person is suffering. A person has faced hurt. And a friendly, well-meaning believer tries to assure that suffering saint that God had nothing to do with their hardship.

Have you heard that one? Perhaps have you said that one? Stop and think a step deeper. When you say that God had nothing to do with an ugly event, what are you really saying? Are you saying that God wishes he could have stopped the sad thing, but was powerless to do so? That does not offer comfort. Are you suggesting that God did allow a bad thing to happen, but he washed his hands of it? Are you suggesting that God let a sad thing occur without purpose, without meaning, without anything redemptive in it? That is not comforting in the long run.

To say that God has nothing to do with our dark times is not only empty comfort, it is also unbiblical.

Isaiah 45:7

I form light and create darkness;
I make well-being and create calamity;
I am the Lord, who does all these things.

When God was speaking of King Cyrus the Persian through Isaiah’s prophecy, God wanted folks to know of his sovereignty. God was going to bring some great things to pass. God was going to bring some very hard things to pass. And God wanted all who were watching to understand that he, the Lord, always accomplishes his will.

Friends, we do not honor the Lord when we say that God can be responsible for good but that he has no purpose in hardship. WE do not honor the Lord when we depict him as sorrowful over a situation he just wishes he could have changed. We do not honor the Lord when we pretend that bad things happen, and nobody knows why. We honor the Lord, and we comfort one another, when we remember that God is good, that his purposes are perfect, and that is understanding is infinitely beyond our own.

How then do we need to comfort others in pain? I’m not suggesting that, when a person hurts, you go and give them a theological treatise on divine sovereignty and suffering. It is far better for that doctrine to be worked out in your life and theirs before the hardship hits. When they suffer, weep with them. Tell them you care. Tell them that you hurt with them. Tell them that their pain is real and not a thing to pretend does not exist.

But, when you speak to a person in pain, do not tell them something false. Do not paint a dishonest or impotent picture of the Lord. That is the emptiest of comforts. Help believers who suffer know that God is good, even when we have no concept of what he is doing in a particular situation.

All Things?

When reading about God, we need to be careful not to miss the way that the Lord has allowed himself to be described. After all, inspired, inerrant, holy Scripture tells us the exact truth of who God is and what he is like. And, if we are not careful, we will let ourselves skip past the descriptions of God in one part of a sentence in order to get to the verb. We like to read about the actions of God. But we must not miss his attributes.

Note how God is described here. Ask yourself if you are willing to believe what God says about himself. Because, if you believe it, you accept a serious doctrine.

Ephesians 1:11 In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will,

God is here called “him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.” Believing this requires the acceptance of the sovereignty of God in a significant way. God works all things according to the counsel of his will—all things, God’s will.

Of course, this is not a new thing in Scripture. We can look other places to see a similar truth claim (cf. Psa. 115:3; Rom. 8:28). But, ask yourself, “What changes in my worldview if I accept the fact that God works all things according to his will?”

Before you let yourself become discouraged, this is not to say that God enjoys evil. Nor does it mean that God is declaring all things to be good things. But, if we grasp that God is purposeful and not random, and Scripture is clear that God is not and has never been random, then we can trust that God has purpose even for our greatest pains and the darkest evils of history. It is a logically flawed view that declares that if God is all good and all powerful, he must eliminate all evil. In truth, the God who is all good, all powerful, and all wise has the ability to have a purpose for all things, good and evil, that is beyond our limited ability to comprehend. And that same God can use all things without himself being tainted by the evil of the actions of mankind.

What the truth that God works all things according to the counsel of his will does declare is that no event on earth, no event in the universe, no great good, no terrible hardship, nothing happens apart from the ultimate and sovereign will of God. Every cubic inch of the universe is under God’s power. Nothing is beyond God’s control. Nothing, absolutely nothing, thwarts God’s will. Life and death, kingdoms rising and falling, harvests and disasters, salvation and damnation, all things work in accord with the ultimate will of God to his ultimate glory. Yes, these include things in which God takes no pleasure. But they never include things that God is powerless to change. God is he who works all things according to the counsel of his will. And such a God is the one we are far better to serve than to think we could ever oppose.

Is That Really Fair?

Do you recall how Moses ended? It is a sad story, really. Moses was born in Egypt, taken by Pharaoh’s daughter and raised like a prince. At age 40, he tried to be a help to his people and found himself running for his life in the desert. He spent 40 years as a shepherd, returned to Egypt at the prompting of God, and began to lead the people. For 40 years afterward, he led a stubborn and rebellious people through a harsh wilderness.

And Moses made one mistake. He lost it one time. God told Moses to speak to a rock and bring water out of it. Moses was at the end of his rope. The people were on his nerves. Moses struck the rock instead of speaking. And that was enough for God to say to Moses that he would not be allowed to cross the Jordan into the promised land. One gaff, and Moses dies in the wilderness like the rest.

My question: Is that really fair?

Deuteronomy 32:48-52 – 48 That very day the Lord spoke to Moses, 49 “Go up this mountain of the Abarim, Mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab, opposite Jericho, and view the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel for a possession. 50 And die on the mountain which you go up, and be gathered to your people, as Aaron your brother died in Mount Hor and was gathered to his people, 51 because you broke faith with me in the midst of the people of Israel at the waters of Meribah-kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin, and because you did not treat me as holy in the midst of the people of Israel. 52 For you shall see the land before you, but you shall not go there, into the land that I am giving to the people of Israel.”

Is God’s judgment on Moses fair here? Or is this a little too harsh?

Can you sense that I’m asking a trick question? Perhaps you can. And perhaps you expect me to follow it up with a defense of the judgment of God on Moses. But here is the actual point: Asking that question is wrong.

Yes, asking if God did something rightly is a wrong question. In order to ask that question, you must set yourself in a position to somehow evaluate the actions, choices, and values of the Lord. You must set yourself up in a position to be able to examine evidence, compare it to a standard, and measure justly. But, dear friend and human being, you cannot do so.

God is the standard of holiness. There is nothing outside of God that measures right and wrong. God is always right by definition. And the moment I try to examine his actions, I must immediately ask myself by what standard I will judge right. I cannot judge by my own measure, as God is greater than me, holy in every way. I cannot measure by another person’s standard, as all are infinitely lesser than the Lord. The only perfect measure of righteousness we have is, get this, God and God’s holy word. God is perfection. Thus, his actions, whether we like or understand them in our limited capacity, are always, absolutely, completely, infinitely perfect.

Do I like Moses’ end? That does not matter. God is holy. God is right. God therefore always judges rightly. And if I am uncomfortable with a judgment of God, I am the one who must come to grips with righteousness, God is already there.

O, and if Moses’ end really bothers you, remember that it is an infinite, a hell-worthy offense, to treat God as anything less than utterly holy. That God would forgive Moses of his sin and save his soul is well beyond fair. God owes Moses nothing more. And I assure you, when Jesus spoke with Moses on the mount of transfiguration, Moses was not complaining.

A Life-Changing Little Line

I want to show you a simple phrase, a little phrase, but one that is paradigm-shifting for all who believe it. The word of God says some major things that are packed into little lines. But, I promise you, if you will believe this, it will change you.

Psalm 18:30

This God—his way is perfect;
the word of the Lord proves true;
he is a shield for all those who take refuge in him.

Speaking of our God, the psalmist says, “This God—his way is perfect.” For many, in a daily bible reading, or perhaps even right here, there will be a temptation to assume that we have thought this through as far as we need to. How about taking a moment today to stop and consider that little phrase a little more seriously.

Our God’s ways are perfect. What does that mean? All that God is and all that god does is perfect. His actions, his motives, his plans are perfect. There is no thing that the Lord has ever done or will ever do that is not absolutely perfect.

How does that compare with you? Can you say that your way is perfect? Can you declare your intellect or your wisdom to be flawless? You cannot say such things if you are both honest and sane.

So, stop and think. Your way is not perfect. God’s way is perfect. This means that we cannot wisely question the ways of the Lord. We cannot sit in judgment over what God says is right. We are fools if we think that we know that which is good better than does the Lord.

And how do we find out what God desires or what God says is right? We look to the Bible, about which the psalmist says, “the word of the Lord proves true.” God’s way is perfect. God’s word is true. Thus the Scripture is the true word of the perfect God.

Our world is so messed up. We battle against all that God says is good and right. Many people, even people I love, would look at the word of God and weigh it in their minds to determine whether or not they are willing to give God’s ways their stamp of approval. We look at Scriptures about households, about family, about gender, about sexuality, and we say whether or not we approve of the Lord’s ways. We look at Scriptures that tell us of God’s sovereign power, of his way of salvation, of his righteous judgment, and we decide whether or not we like how God works.

Dear friends, hear this truth again. God’s way is perfect. His word is true. It is not my place or your place to judge whether or not we think God’s ways meet our standards. We are flawed. God is holy. Our right response to the word is to surrender to the God whose way is perfect, to trust in his word that is true, and to take refuge in the Lord for life.

Repentance for Questions

As the book of Job comes to a close, we watch the dramatic confrontation take place, but it is not the one we expect at the beginning. From the third chapter of the book onward, we are expecting to see Job confront the Lord with his questions as to why all this bad stuff is happening to him. But, in the end, it is the Lord confronting Job, and rightly so.

By chapter 40, we have already had a couple of chapters in which God has shown Job that Job is unqualified to even ask the questions that he is demanding that God answer. Job was not there when God set the universe in place. Job was not there when God set the stars in order. Job does not know how God keeps the snow and the hailstones. Job is finite, and there is no way that he is ready to question God.

And as chapter 40 begins, God checks with Job to see if Job has gotten the point.

Job 40:1-8

1 And the Lord said to Job:
2 “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty?
He who argues with God, let him answer it.”
3 Then Job answered the Lord and said:
4 “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you?
I lay my hand on my mouth.
5 I have spoken once, and I will not answer;
twice, but I will proceed no further.”
6 Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said:
7 “Dress for action like a man;
I will question you, and you make it known to me.
8 Will you even put me in the wrong?
Will you condemn me that you may be in the right?

In verses 1-2, God asks Job if he really wants to fight this battle. And Job, in 3-5, says that he will remain silent. Job has almost gotten there, but he is not quite there yet.

Thus, with the beginning of verse 6, we get another couple of chapters of questions in which the Lord again declares his infinite might and infinite wisdom in comparison to Job’s finitude.

All this to get to verse 8, the question that God asks that should ring in our ears like a gong. In verse 8, God asks, “Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be in the right?” And you should be able to feel what the answer to this question should be. It is a rhetorical question, and it’s obvious teaching point is this: No human being has the right to attempt to declare God to be in the wrong.

Stop and consider this truth more clearly. What would be required for a human being to have the right to declare God to be in the wrong? There are only two possibilities that I can think of, and each of them is horrific. One possibility would be that a human being could declare God to be in the wrong if there is an external measure of right and wrong to appeal to that is outside of, beyond, and over God. But if such a standard existed, a thing above God to measure him and find him right or wrong, that standard would be the ultimate, not the deity it claims to measure. Thus, to declare that God is measured by an external standard would declare God to be less than God. The second alternative, one even more blasphemous if possible, would be to declare that the human himself is in a superior position to the Lord and thus has the right to measure and judge God.

But all of theology teaches us that God is the ultimate. God is holy, a cut above us in his perfections, and is measured by no external standard. God gives us the standard of right, not the other way around.

Job 42:1-6

1 Then Job answered the Lord and said:
2 “I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
3 ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
4 ‘Hear, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you make it known to me.’
5 I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;
6 therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.”

In chapter 42, Job repents. He even laughs at his own foolishness for how he darkened counsel by words without knowledge. Job knows that his words added nothing to the discussion. Job knows that his questions came from an entirely wrong place and lacked wisdom. And so, unlike chapter 40 when Job merely said he would be silent, now Job repents. He was wrong in his questions and attitude. He was wrong in believing that he could declare God to be wrong. And so Job turns. And the book ends with God showing Job grace and favor.

I do not, in this little post, desire to be unsympathetic to Job. He messed up—otherwise repenting would not be the proper response—but he messed up far less than many a human would have done in his setting. Remember his wife telling him in 2:9 just to curse God and die? No, I do not want to put Job down in any way. But this is a significant point that we must grab hold of. God is God and we are not. We are in no position to judge the morality of God, because we lack the wisdom and purity to even begin to measure his perfections.

I have had conversations with many people who do not understand the ways of the Lord. They may even say, at the end of the day, that they disagree with laws God made or things God calls sin. They may disagree with the existence of hell or that Christ is the only way. And all of these are questions of the actual morality, the moral goodness, of God.

We must, if we are not to be taken down a very dangerous path, begin with a proper understanding of the infinite wisdom and unending holiness of god. We must remember that, if God really is God, he cannot be measured by a morality that is external to him. He must be the standard of perfection, for no other being in the universe matches his glory. God is right. And when we think that we can judge his choices, we are acting, to follow Scripture’s own description, like fools.

Who Is This?

One place where modern folks might find the book of Job quite helpful is in how the Lord responds to the questions of Job. It is popular these days to tell everybody that every question they have is a valid one, a good one. We are told there are no stupid questions. We are told that everybody has the right to be angry with god—an obvious falsehood, but not one opposed by nearly enough people.

But consider Job. This man suffered. He went through a hardship that he did not earn through open rebellion against the Lord. And he had questions. Job did not understand why God was doing what god was doing. The actions of God had hurt Job. And Job felt like he deserved an answer.

If the modern Christian wrote this book, I think he would be likely to depict God as a friendly psychologist, listening, nodding, validating Job’s feelings. Perhaps a modern author would even have God tell Job what was up, opening the curtain to give Job a well-deserved peek. But that is not what really happened.

Job 38:1-4

1 Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said:
2 “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
3 Dress for action like a man;
I will question you, and you make it known to me.
4 “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.

Job had questions for God. Job demanded answers. Job let us know that he would not be satisfied until he could get from the Lord the answers he sought.

God turned to Job, and his first two questions make clear how this is all going to go. God asks who in the world this man is. He is darkening counsel through words without knowledge. That is God telling us that, as Job speaks, he is lowering the IQ of the room. Job is speaking without knowledge. Thus, Job is muddying the waters and not shining the light of wisdom. Job is decrying the unfairness of God, but Job does not know enough about ultimate reality to speak.

Then, in the second question, God turns to Job, tells him to get ready, and then asks where Job was when God laid the foundation of the earth. Are you as old as the planet, Job? If you are not, then how could you possibly think you know enough about reality to begin to question the God who created the universe?

Think of something you know nothing about: cooking, carpentry, plumbing, physics, musical composition, etc. I’m sure that one of those categories will suffice. For illustrative purposes, let’s say you know nothing about plumbing. A plumber, an expert plumber, the kind of plumber that Mario would be uber-jealous of, sets up a new bathroom for you. Imagine that you look at his work, and then begin to scold him for having used what is, in your opinion, the wrong tool to tighten up a pipe fitting. You look at him and demand that he explain to you how he could possibly have chosen the particular wrench he did. Would you not expect the expert to look at you and say, “Where were you when I set up my plumbing business? Have you been trained?”

Your question to the imaginary plumber is infinitely less insulting than was Job’s question of the Lord. Job has no knowledge, none whatsoever, to qualify him to demand that God explain himself. And the point is that neither do we.

God is holy. God is infinite in his perfections and wisdom. You and I are sinners, finite in our understanding. We have no right to demand God answer to us. We have no right to sit in judgment over the Lord as if we could evaluate his decisions. God is God and we are not. And the book of Job reminds us of this foundational truth. Indeed, who do we think we are?

God is God and We are Not

In the book of Job, Elihu brings us wisdom that the older men sitting in front of him are lacking. Job gets off track and declares his innocence before the Lord, a dangerous thing. The other three friends declare that they understand exactly what God is doing and they offer no comfort to Job, a dangerous thing. And only when the frustrated Elihu speaks do we start really getting some wisdom.

When Elihu speaks in the text below, he will open to us two significant truths that we need to keep hold of today.

Job 34:13-15

13 Who gave him charge over the earth,
and who laid on him the whole world?
14 If he should set his heart to it
and gather to himself his spirit and his breath,
15 all flesh would perish together,
and man would return to dust.

Elihu shows us, in his questions and thoughts here, two important things. First, he reminds us that God is not under the authority of any other power. God is the authority, the ultimate judge. Second, he shows us that God is the necessary being, the one upon which the entire universe rests.

In verse 13, Elihu asks, “Who gave him charge over the earth, and who laid on him the whole world?” What is the obvious answer? Nobody put God in charge. God is the Creator. God is the one by whom, for whom, through whom the universe exists.

That truth must remind us that God is not, therefore, subject to any sort of outside judgment of his actions. God is not judged by an external standard of justice. God is not measured by a law or a standard other than himself. We do not look at God’s actions and then look to someone or something else to check to see if his actions are OK. God is the measure that determines righteousness. God is not subject to any other measure.

Then, in verses 14-15, Elihu says to us, “If he should set his heart to it and gather to himself his spirit and his breath, all flesh would perish together, and man would return to dust.” This is the idea that God is necessary to the existence of all that is. If the Lord were to stop upholding the universe by his will and his power, the universe would cease to exist. God makes the universe be. The universe contributes nothing to the existence of God.

Realize that both of these points come as a response to Job’s accusations of injustice on the part of god. And thus, these points should also come to modern folks who accuse God of injustice. When a person indicates that the ways of the Lord do not meet their personal understanding of what is right, they need to recall that God, not mankind, is the standard of what is right. So, it should not surprise us one bit that God does not fit our description of how things should be. God is straight while we are crooked. God is even while we are warped. God is holy while we are sinners. And God measures us; we do not measure God.

And when a person thinks to himself or herself that they will walk away from the Lord, we also need to remind them that God is necessary for their very existence. They live by his mercy and in accord with his sustaining power. To turn and think they will make a point against God by not following him is not to harm God. We are subject to the judgment of the Lord. We are dependent upon the Lord. He has never been and will never be reliant upon us.

May we allow verses like these to remind us of the old truth that God is God and we are not. God is Master and we are his subjects. God is right and we are naturally wrong. And the only way for us to be right is for us to shape our view of the world to match the revelation of God in his holy word.

A Better Response Than Demanding to Know Why

Our reflex, when things go hard, is to act as though we must know why God chose to let things happen the way that he did. Some folks will pretend that they know, assuming that they can figure out the ways and plans of the Lord. Others just howl in frustration as they demand answers from God that they do not receive. And, of course, if this all continues, some will walk away from their claimed faith because they are unsatisfied with how God does things and then refuses to explain himself.

Job experienced this, of course. He hurt, demanded answers, and had the Lord respond. But God’s response to Job did not ever answer his question. Instead, God showed Job that God is infinitely above him, and thus Job cannot rightly begin to question God.

In Ecclesiastes, Solomon questions and questions why the world works the way that it does. He gets to a place where he feels like life is meaningless. Bad people get good things. Bad things happen to good people. And it takes until chapter 12 for him to remember that fearing God is what makes life meaningful.

And in my read through the Bible, Jesus shows us that he is the same God who will not be forced to explain himself to people who cannot possibly understand his ways. Watch as a group asks Jesus about a tragedy, Jesus brings up another tragedy, and then we get what we are to learn.

Luke 13:1-5 – 1 There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. 4 Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

Why did these bad things happen? All Jesus gives is that the people who suffered a great hardship did not suffer it because they were worse sinners than others. But then, in both cases that Jesus spoke of, the Savior told us one simple piece of advice. Instead of thinking we can figure out why God does the things he does, instead of thinking we can demand he answer us, we should repent. We are sinner. We deserve far worse judgment than any of us have ever received. We should rejoice in the mercy of God in the fact that we are still breathing, repent of sin, and find mercy and lasting grace in him.

How different would things be for us, Christians, if we stopped demanding answers and instead fell on grace? How different, how much more godly would we be, if we simply refused to think that we have the right to judge whether or not God’s actions are OK. The Lord always does rightly, whether we understand it or not. And the pains of this life are reminders that we need the mercy of God if we are to survive in the now and in eternity.